It looks like an old building – in Singapore, perhaps, but the weather is cool enough that I’m wearing a coat. A peacoat, camel and collared, that makes me feel like a British schoolgirl. Mum’s told me to get a bedsheet for the beat-up mattress in the guest room; seems like someone does want to rent that room after all. And so here I stand, my arm desperately clutching the sponge to my side. I drag it and myself into the busy building, into the crowd that mumbles in low tones and that smells like medicinal oil.
I tug the mattress up the stairs to the second floor and into the service lift. There is a man with a moustache and a bellboy’s uniform manning the old lift’s control panel. He pulls the rusty gate open and I cringe at the shower of dust that falls on me.
“Best get home and wash that coat,” he says to me with a wink. I am uncomfortable and tell him to bring me to “Third floor, please,” and purse my lips, keeping my eyes trained on the strangely clean bottom of the elevator.
The bell pings and I get out, still not looking at the man in the lift. I discover I am standing in a grey-carpeted hallway. It smells musty, as if no one has come up here for a very, very long time. I look to my left; there are small shops, some with fronts, some just a table and some chairs. I look to my right; it is the same, except all the shops, except one, are closed.
I squint and make out the silhouette of mattresses against the frosted windows of the singular open shop. I breathe a sigh of relief – maybe I’ll be home earlier than I thought. I pull the mattress along the hallway, past five closed doors, set it down, and knock timidly on the door. (People here aren’t known for their hospitality.)
An old man sweeps the door open and grins. He has a full set of pearly whites, and I immediately assume he’s from abroad. His hair is almost completely white, his skin is speckled with liver spots, but it’s smooth and tanned.
“Hello! Mattress trouble, I see! You’ve come to the right place, young ma’am! Come in, come in,” He has the voice of someone half his age and the energy to match, hoisting the mattress off the floor and leaning it against the wall, then assembling a tray of tea and biscuits and setting it down on the desk in the middle of the room. All this, while I stood in the doorway having a hard time comprehending this strange man.
“Come in, have a seat, how may I help you?” He gestures towards a plush velvet chair in front of his desk. It looks terribly out of place in the white, fluorescent-lit office, furnished only by the desk, a black office chair and numerous mattresses lining the walls. My stomach flips as I step forward and sink into the indigo velvet. I’m quite sure this is the most expensive chair I’ve ever touched. Or at least it looks like it.
The man – Steven, by the looks of the cardboard nameplate on his desk – clears his throat, and I remember why I am there.
“Right, my mum- it’s not really mattress trouble, per se…” I stutter under the weight of his gaze. He grins. I try again.
“I need a bedsheet, for the mattress, see,” I wave my hand towards what is, truthfully, nothing more than a sheet of sponge. “We need it urgently, so whatever you’ve got lying around, I don’t mind.”
“Well, well, well, we can’t send you home with just any old bedsheet, can we?” Suddenly I feel my hair flying around my face wildly, as if it were caught in a tornado, but Steven is still smiling at me with candour. I am unsettled, and my eyes dart around the room nervously.
“What do you need it for?” I look back at Steven. He is staring intently at me, and as I look, his skin starts to age rapidly before my eyes. It turns darker, liver spots appear and multiply, spreading across the visage. His skin starts to dry out, wrinkles crinkling around his eyes and mouth before spreading to the rest of his face. I stare, wide-eyed, as the skin around his lips crack and split and his mouth stretches to let out a screech. I spin around in abject horror, grabbing the mattress as I sprint out – gods forbid I return home to the wrath of my mother.
I run out of the shop and into an open lift, apologizing profusely to its other occupants for knocking into them. My mind races as the lift progresses slowly downwards, stopping at almost every floor on its way. I am lost in my thoughts as everyone else alights, and by the third floor I am alone. My hands shake. The lights flicker. I can hear the power ebb and flow through the aging cables. The bell dings and I grabbed the mattress, poised to run. Except-
The doors open to reveal an empty roundabout. The centerpiece is ornate marble, with a golden, rusty, algae-covered statue of Michelangelo’s David. I stand in the cold, clutching the crumbling sponge to my chest as I shiver and look back. There is no trace of the lift, the old building, or any of its inhabitants.
I am alone.
The wind roars in my ears and whips my hair around almost painfully. My eyes tear and I forget about the mattress. My mind spins, and the world along with it. I sob. Tears stream down my face and I choke, vision blurring. Thoughts of home flood my mind as I stumble off the kerb. The gale blasts past my ears, growing fiercer by the second. Raindrops streak across my face, and the wind wraps my hair around my neck.
I spin with the gusts and trip over my feet. Landing on my hands, I turn just in time to see the mattress swept away and carried on the gale with the leaves. I struggle to my feet and my coat is pulled at by the tempest – first the seams under my arms are torn, then the buttons holding my coat closed are popped off, then my arms are pushed apart and the coat flies off my shoulders. I reel with the strength of the squall. My heart is in my throat.
I feel my skin tightening, pulling in painfully against my bones. It sags downwards and I feel it loosen, wrinkles lining my eyes and mouth. My eyes roll backwards into my skull, and I scream. Cracks bleeding around my lips, I clutch at my hair to see it fall out in clumps between my knobby, liver-spotted knuckles. The world closes in.
The world goes dark.